A 20-mile section of new border wall built near El Paso, Texas, cut illegal crossings by more than 80%, the government’s top border official told Congress on Thursday.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said the key is not just the border wall but the entire system being built, with roads and lighting and, in some cases, multiple layers of fencing.
He said that’s giving agents more time to get to spots where breakthroughs happen, and when they can respond, they can make arrests or force people to retreat back into Mexico.
“We’ve seen apprehensions and illegal entries and gotaways all being reduced by over 80% in that 20-mile stretch,” Mr. Morgan told the House Appropriations Committee.
President Trump’s wall-building campaign is among the most divisive moves of his administration and has dominated this week’s series of hearings as Department of Homeland Security officials defend their fiscal 2021 budget proposal.
Democrats pointed to reports that even the new designs can be cut through using tools available at a hardware store, and questioned the value of the tens of billions of dollars Mr. Trump wants to spend.
Mr. Morgan said the wall isn’t only about blocking people — it’s about shaping their activities, delaying and funneling them into place where agents are able to respond.
“It’s not that it’s impenetrable. But it does deny and impede long enough for Border Patrol agents to actually get there to do the apprehension and interdiction. And it works.”
Mr. Trump’s budget asks for $2 billion in wall-building money for next year, in addition to about $10 billion he has siphoned from the Pentagon’s accounts into wall-building this year and last.
As of the beginning of February, CBP had built 109 miles of wall.
Of that, about 55 miles replaced dilapidated fencing or old designs, while another 53 miles went to areas where there were previously vehicle barriers, but no wall. One mile had been built in a location where there was no barrier at all.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, was incensed over some of the construction in Arizona, where she said border officials were trying to “blow up mountains” she said were sacred to the Tohono O’odham, a Native American nation with a history dating to well before there was a U.S.-Mexico border.
She also accused CBP of ruining the fragile desert landscape of saguaro cactus, the iconic symbol of the southwestern desert — though she repeatedly mispronounced the cactus’s name, using a hard “g” instead of the correct “w” sound.
“Some of the cactuses that were destroyed here were around even before the border existed,” she said.
Mr. Morgan insisted CBP had followed the law in consulting with the Tohono O’odham by holding meetings, and he vehemently objected to the description of “blowing up” their heritage.
“I don’t believe that is what I consider we’re doing,” he said.
Ms. Wasserman Schultz, not to be deterred, said border wall construction teams have already unearthed grave sites.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if the federal government blew up your great grandmother’s grave, which is what you’re doing here,” she said.
Mr. Morgan did manage to assuage the worries of another Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, who seized on a recent report that members of the Border Patrol’s tactical team, known as BORTAC, were being deployed to sanctuary cities to help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement track down illegal immigrants in the communities.
Mr. Morgan said that was a misunderstanding.
He said 100 CBP agents and officers have volunteered to be loaned to ICE, but it’s not a full deployment of BORTAC teams. Instead, “just a handful” of agents who are on BORTAC teams volunteered to be part of the effort, which is split 50-50 between Border Patrol agents and port of entry officers.
He also rebutted suggestions they would be deployed with full military-style tactical gear, saying they’ll be indistinguishable from the ICE deportation officers they’ll be working with.
“We’re going to look like them, dress like them and follow their auspices,” he said.